County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said this week that a commitment to improving public education is a prominent aspect of his $2.69 billion operating budget for FY 2013, presented Thursday, April 12, to the County Council.
"When times are tough, we have to prioritize what are our core functions," Kamenetz said. "Our core functions are, for funding purposes, to focus on public education, public safety and maintenance of our infrastructure."
Chief among those commitments to the school system — which represent 52 percent of the county's budget — is a $149 million school bond referendum for, among other items, construction projects that will add a total of 1,100 elementary school seats within the overcrowded York Road corridor.
Kamenetz' budget includes full funding for the renovation of and a 200-seat addition to Stoneleigh Elementary, $18 million for a new 700-seat elementary school in Mays Chapel, $4.2 million for a 200-seat addition to Sparks Elementary, as well as funding for the completion of the Hampton Elementary addition.
Councilman David Marks, who represents the 5th District, including Towson, said the emphasis Kamenetz has placed on education in his first year will carry through the entire term of office.
"I applaud the county executive for supporting school construction in the Towson area, which desperately needs it," Marks said.
Cathi Forbes, president of Towson Families United, said after the speech that the systemic overcrowding problem could only be solved by adding more seats.
"There's nowhere to redistrict, there's nowhere to move anyone," she said. "But this will go a long way to solving that."
The budget also includes $34 million for an addition and renovation to Hereford High and another $18.5 million for an elementary school in the northwest area of the county, Kamenetz said.
The state has committed $42 million for school construction projects, he said, up $10 million from 2012.
The school referendum also includes $32.5 million to fund air-conditioning in 10 county schools: Catonsville Elementary, Fort Garrison Elementary, Sudbrook Middle Magnet, Timonium Elementary, Franklin Elementary, Hebbville Elementary, Woodmoor Elementary, Middleborough Elementary and Sussex Elementary.
"When I took office 17 months ago, more than half of our schools did not have air conditioning," Kamenetz said. "We are adopting a systemic approach to resolve this issue, which again continues to be fully dependent on our management of resources in a fiscally prudent manner."
Air conditioning will also be added to Stoneleigh Elementary and Hereford High as part of the renovations and could be installed in the other 10 schools in the summer of 2013, Kamenetz said.
With those improvements, only 36 percent of the county's 164 schools will be without air conditioning, he said.
"We're going to continue this steady process with each referendum until all schools are air-conditioned," Kamenetz said.
Maintaining tax rates
The budget also includes $20 million for road resurfacing in each of the next two years, $13 million for the fire department to purchase a new breathing apparatus, 21 medic units and two ladder trucks, and $26 million for Department of Public Works equipment.
"Frankly, it would be nice to tell you that the most difficult times are behind us, but that is simply not true," Kamenetz said.
"In order to avoid raising tax rates upon those we represent, we must continue to make tough decisions to deliver upon our obligation to our county's 805,000 residents," he said.
Under Kamenetz's budget proposal, the county's property tax rate would remain level for the 24th straight year — at $1.10 per every $100 of assessed value — and income taxes would not be raised for the 20th straight year.